Generation Wealth

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‘Generation Wealth’ is a multi-platform project which includes a photography exhibition, a beautiful coffee table book and of course, the documentary film of the same name.

Director, Lauren Greenfield says that filmmaking is a ‘constant process’ (pg 219) and ‘the way she got good footage was by proximity to her topics for some long period of time and by gaining the trust of her subjects’. (McCreadie, pg 190) This film epitomises this approach to filmmaking, returning to previous subjects with whom she already has an established relationship with and following up on their lives.

The film is centred around her extensive personal photography archive, her audio recordings, some over a quarter of a century old and talking head interviews with the people featured in her photographs.

Greenfield uses both archival and modern interviews with the subjects of her photographs on the subject of wealth, beauty and power. The sheer number of participants in the film means she cannot analyse their characters in the same way she did with her previous film, The Queen of Versailles. However, this film takes a different approach examining microcosms  of society to tell us more about the world today.

A reoccurring theme through the film is that “Society acquires its greatest wealth in the face of death.” That by looking at spending habits of a few people around the world we are able to extrapolate a lot about the society in which they live.

The film suggests that thanks to the fictitious world created my the media having status is the new American dream. It is suggested that the porn stars, criminals, ‘rich kids’ and beauty queens that  are featured in this film see obscene amounts of money as the easiest way to reach that dream. And that they will do whatever it takes to accumulate that wealth. One could be lead to think that Greenfield is suggesting that these displays of wealth are an indication that America is heading for a fall.

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I really enjoyed the film, it was incredible to see such a large quantity of Greenfield’s photographic work presented in relation to a single topic and to hear more about her own life and approach to her work. Would definitely recommend! 

‘Generation Wealth’ is now in cinemas and available to watch online through Curzon Home Cinema.

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Top 5 Archive Documentaries

Archive material can be used in so many creative and innovative ways. Here is a break down of the best archive documentaries out there, some of the techniques they use and where to watch them.

5: HyperNormalisation’ (2016)

Director Adam Curtis is known for his blend of authoritative voice over, hypnotic music and juxtaposing archive footage and ‘Hypernormalisation’ is no exception. In his exploration of the ‘fake world’ we now live in, Curtis uses contrasting archive footage to illustrate his essay and to create new meaning. While the tone of his narration is closer to a news story, it lacks the same objectivity.  It places him in a position of authority resulting in audiences being more likely to accept what he says as the truth, despite a lack of hard evidence.

Available on BBC iPlayer or in full on Youtube

4: ‘Notes on Blindness’ (2016)

Built around Professor John Hull’s audio diary tapes, ‘Notes on Blindness’ depicts the emotional impact the deterioration of sight has on Hull and his family.

The film utilises dramatic reconstructions alongside the original audio from Hull’s tapes, rather than voice over from a talking head interview. This allows for a more immersive cinematic experience and audiences are made to feel more connected to Hull and his wife, Marilyn.

Available on Amazon and Netflix 

4:Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief‘ (2015)

Adapted from the 2013 Pulitzer-Prize winning book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, the documentary explores the secret world and the inner dealings of the Church of Scientology.

Director, Alex Gibney, provides an in-depth history of the church and in doing so presents the reasons in which people feel compelled to join.

Through the use of archive footage, some modern B-roll and talking head interviews with a number of former members of Scientology audiences are shown what happens to members as they try to leave the Church.

It is, in my opinion, the best film about Scientology out there.

Available in full on Youtube

2: ‘Cobain: Montage of Heck’ (2015)

Montage of Heck is an example of expertly utilising access. As he was approached by the subject of the film’s widow, Courtney Love, director Brett morgen had access to never before seen home footage and photographs, unheard songs from Nirvana’s archive and Cobain’s artwork and journals. Along with talking head interviews with friends and family and stylised animation the film shines a new light on the life of the music legend.

Available on Netflix  and in full on Youtube

1: Amy (2015)

Asif Kapadia’s ‘Amy’ is built up of archive footage of the star with the audio from interviews with those who know her best, including her father Mitch and her muse/ex-husband Blake. The director uses the lyrics Winehouse wrote as a narrative map to tell her story. The words she wrote reveal more about the inner workings of her mind than the other narrative devices.

The film is remarkable and will captivate audiences, whether you’re a fan of her music or otherwise.

Available on Amazon and in full on Youtube

 

 

Documentary Diary: A critical analysis of the Maysles Brother’s ‘Grey Gardens’.

I’m going to explore the ways in which the Maysles Brothers used techniques synonymous with direct cinema. They produced a candid and controversial non-fiction feature film depicting the relationship between an eccentric mother and her daughter. The film’s aesthetic embraces its imperfections as a hallmark of realism. It follows direct cinema conventions with handheld camera movements and the use of only diegetic sound. The drama unfolds unscripted and without narration. The filmmakers’ faith in the spontaneous, asks nothing more from its subjects than their permission to be filmed.

Whilst working with the Drew Associates the Maysles Brothers saw fault in other modes of documentary, which strongly resembled propaganda and often mislead audiences. The Drew Associates set about revolutionising documentary film, aiming to produce more intimate and objective content. In the early 1960s when the brothers began working on their own productions, they continued to develop the principals of direct cinema.

In 1972, first lady Jacqueline Kennedys sister, Lee Radziwill (mother-in-law of Real Housewives of NY’s Carole Radziwell) approached the Maysles brothers to produce a film about her childhood. On the list of places she suggested to film was Grey Gardens, a 28-room East Hamptons mansion which was an overgrown flea ridden fortress. Although Radziwill eventually lost interest in the project the brothers found a fascination with the mansion’s residents, Edith ‘Big Edie’ Beale and her daughter ‘Little Edie’. The women’s fierce tenacity and complex relationship with one another captivated the filmmakers in the same way the film does with its audiences.

As the aunt and first cousin of Jackie O, the Beale’s isolated life and the increasingly decrepit state of Grey Gardens was a far cry from what they were brought up to be accustomed to. ‘Big Edie’ a former singer and ‘Little Edie’ who was a model and ‘it’ girl, were both New York socialites. Before Big Edie and her husband separated the women lived a life of luxury, attending premiers and donning the latest fashions. Little Edie’s love of clothes continued when their disposable income declined, she would creatively fashion her flamboyant outfits from towels, bed sheets and curtains. The documentary explores how two aristocrats both with beauty and talent ended up being the subject of criticism for living in such appalling conditions. The local board of health ordered the women to improve the state of the house or be evicted. Little Edie believed this was an invasion of their privacy, pushing the two women into an even more insular existence.

Despite their impoverished circumstances, the high society drop outs seem content in their decaying mansion relying only on each other, their cats and the raccoons in the attic for company. The only regular visitor was Jerry Torre, the women’s young handyman. After running away from home he was taken in by the women and became somewhat of a rival sibling for Little Edie. The presence of a man in the house served as an unpleasant reminder of the rich suitors scared away by Big Edie. Little Edie who frequently brought up the men’s marriage proposals displayed resentment for missed opportunities throughout the film.

The exposition of the film is done largely through the use of a montage of news clippings showing the coverage that ‘Grey Gardens’ was receiving and the attitude neighbours had to the women’s lifestyle. The use of montage is effective because as well as providing the mansion’s back story it places emphasis on the story being true. The Maysles brothers do little to hide their presence in the film. Whilst the headlines are being shown, their voices are heard accompanied by an image of the two men. J B. Vogels (2005) argues that this is an important part of the film as it cements the Maysles as both supporting characters within the film and its creators. This is also apparent as glimpses of the filmmakers can be seen in reflections in mirrors and when the Beales directly address or speak about the men. By showing images of the brothers with their equipment the film makes its audience acknowledge that although the film shows the real lives of its subjects, it’s presented as a manufactured product. The documentary’s self-reflexive nature makes it not only about the inhabitants of Grey Gardens but about a time when a film crew visited them. 

Direct Cinema was dependant on the new technologies coming out at the time. Sound recording equipment became smaller and more portable as did the cameras. ‘Grey Gardens’ is filmed in a fly on the wall style, conforming to the conventions of direct cinema. The handheld camera enabled Albert Maysles to move freely and capture the action quickly, although at times the shot would be shaky and lacking focus. ‘These ‘flaws’ in themselves seem to guarantee authenticity and thus became desirable.’ (MacDonald, 1996, p.250)  With the heavier pre-war equipment this style would not have been as achievable.

‘The beauty of a Maysles image most often arises through its startling immediacy, capturing and seizing the spontaneity of a moment….rather than freezing the image into one of overly aestheticized beauty.’ Joe McElhaney – Albert Maysles University of Illinois Press 2009.

McElhaney points out that the camera operator being there to capture the action unfolding on film is part of the attraction of this documentary. The fact the Maysles were there to record the moments at all is more important than the technical excellence of the images produced. It is the film’s visual imperfections that become a metaphor for the women’s lives which are at times off-kilter, messy and difficult to follow.

The filmmakers shot hours of footage without forming a final judgment of what the outcome of the film would be. The Maysles allowed a single camera to roll continuously whilst recording sound. This resulted in the film being largely made up of long takes, which are a common feature of direct cinema films. The creators aspire to be objective; the less they have to manipulate their footage the better. The Maysles allowed ‘Grey Gardens’ to serve as an exploration of the women’s feelings towards each other as well as their fears of men and the outside world. Edith and Edie spent a lot of time reminiscing about their past as they look through photo albums and express regret over missed opportunities. From the photographs the audience can see how the women, much like their mansion, were once beautiful but age and lack of care have caught up on them. The dissimilarity of the old photographs and the tightly framed images from the present highlight how their lives changed. Grey Gardens which in their youth was a sanctuary has become somewhat of an asylum for the women, trapping them in a lost time and in their view protecting them from the outside world.

The idea of the two women being imprisoned in Grey Gardens is repeated throughout the film. As Little Edie gives a tour of her bedroom she holds a birdcage and a poster advertising a world tour in her hands. She then goes on to explain how she would hang them next to each other on the wall. The juxtaposition shows Edie’s feelings of imprisonment and yearnings for the freedom of her youth. With the remarkable contrast between the two objects and the attention they are given in the film, it is hard to believe this moment was a coincidence. It raises questions about the reality of the film and suggests Edie is orchestrating her own narrative within the Maysles’ production. Instances of Edie’s directing can also be seen at the beginning of the film when she suggests what the brothers should capture next. 

American direct cinema pioneer Robert Drew ‘saw direct cinema as a ‘theatre without actors’.’ (MacDonald, 1996, p.250) The Maysles tried to faithfully follow this model but some could argue that with Edie’s flair for the dramatic she would often act for the camera. Edie’s acknowledgement of the camera’s presence distances the film from direct cinema norms. She makes reference to her outfit as ‘the best costume for today,’ indicating she sees each day the filmmakers are there as a performance. She gives directorial advice to the crew and shows an apparently exaggerated version of herself within her dance routines.

Direct cinema can be seen as an approach which disregards fictional elements. This would imply that everything we see on screen is the ‘truth’. However, it is through the editorial decisions that the ‘truth’ captured by the camera is given a meaningful narrative. Ultimately the final film is a presentation of the filmmakers’ interpretation of reality. ‘Given the editorial nature of the process, a documentary/non-fiction feature film can only ever represent a truth selected by…the filmmaker.’ (Young, 2002, p.14). John Grierson argued that documentaries are ‘the creative treatment of actuality’ and in ‘Grey Gardens’ examples of this can be seen. There are instances when one woman is talking and it suddenly cuts to the other’s reaction. The film was shot with one camera so the close up reaction shots of the women could not have been captured. Artistic liberties were obviously taken by the editor to choose an appropriate shot to enhance the dynamic witnessed by the single camera.

The editing techniques used contribute to the chaotic feel of the film. It is choppy and utilises jump cuts frequently. This suits the manner in which the story is told as it is highly fragmented and it challenges formulaic narrative structures by blurring time distinctions. It mimics the disharmonious lives the mother and daughter lead. It also suggests that they have both lost all concept of time. They don’t pay attention to what day of the week it is, nor the time of day. This idea is also captured by Little Edie who said ‘It’s difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.’ The women appear to have become jaded with the present and long for their lost youth.

Alongside the images, synchronous sound is played; all of which is diegetic. This is because with direct cinema, the filmmaker does not want to generate a synthetic emotional plea to the audience. Since both the women were aspiring entertainers, music is a pivotal part of the film. The Beales singing along to the records contributes to the often discordant sound of the documentary. The pair frequently squabble and talk over each other as they speak directly to the camera. The fly on the wall effect is furthered by this because in a fictional film, actors would generally wait for their cue to deliver lines. However, the way they are shown doing this suggests they are competing for the attention of the lens. This may not resonate with modern audiences as films with this kind of sound rarely give rise to commercial success. There is no narrator which is common in observational cinema films. There is a belief that interesting subjects and circumstances are enough to hold the target audience’s attention.

Jay Cocks (1976) scrutinized the film stating it was ‘an aimless act of ruptured privacy and an exploitation’. Grey Gardens did prove to be uncomfortable viewing for some. It was released at a time before reality television’s prominence, audiences were surprised and in some cases appalled by having such a detailed view into the Beale’s lives. The voyeuristic feeling the film generated in viewers may have been an effect of the fly on the wall style Grey Gardens was filmed in. However, in response to a slanderous review of the film Little Edie wrote, ‘We’re proud of it and couldn’t be more pleased. It’s us!’ she also defended Albert Maysles by saying he was a pioneer and because of this he will be criticised.

The long takes, diegetic sound, absence of narrator and the hand held camera movements create a free flowing and impossibly intimate view of the extraordinary life of two ordinary women. Albert Maysles ‘asserted that ‘the more personal [a film] is, the more it tells everybody’s story.’.’ Audiences can sympathise with the dysfunctional family dynamic and feel inspired by the women to go against the status-quo.

David Bowie has happened.

davie-bowie‘David Bowie is: Happening Now was a cinema spectacle unlike anything I have seen before. Bowie horded everything he collected over the course of his career and over 300 of these items were featured in the sell out retrospective exhibition at the V&A. The exhibition closed on Sunday but before the archive travels across the globe there was one last chance for fans to get their Bowie fix. On 13th August, Broadway Plaza Odeon showed streaming from the live event at London’s V&A Museum.

It was a perfectly constructed piece of cinematic joy, including live footage hosted by curators Vicky Broackes and Geoff Marsh, exclusive archive images and prerecorded segments to tell the stories behind items including Bowie’s instruments, sketches, handwritten lyrics and costumes. How he influenced pop culture was a key point of the film, Paul Robertson’s ‘Periodic Table of Bowie’ which is shown in the final room of the exhibition is the perfect encapsulation of this. Individuals who have worked with or have been inspired by David Bowie were interviewed throughout the course of the film to illustrate how Bowie is without doubt one of the most influential performers of all time. Having never been to a ‘live cinema event’ before I was surprised how emotive and engaging the experience turned out to be. Living in a society where socializing via Skype or Face Time has become a day to day normality it wasn’t difficult to feel as if you were part of the event yourself. The only disappointment for me was that Bowie did not appear in the film himself, but in terms of having an insight to his life and career the experience was like no other.

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Documentary Diary: Bill Cunningham New York

If you haven’t already seen ‘’Bill Cunningham: New York’’ it is certainly one to add to your list of films to watch. I have wanted to see this documentary for a while but was unable to find any screenings near me, so when I found it was playing on Sky Arts I was thrilled.

The filmmakers create an intimate portrait of the enigmatic photographer while exploring the role fashion plays within New York Society and the evolutionary nature of fads and style.

Through a number of interviews with the artist himself and his neighbors and friends we learn more about Bill Cunningham’s extraordinary life. The film focuses on the life of Bill however his muses are just as crucial to documentary as the photographer himself. Editta Sherman, who lives next door to him in Carnegie Hall, is perhaps the most notable. Editta’s huge studio next door to Bill Cunningham’s tiny apartment (with no kitchen, closet or his own bathroom) shows the modest life he leads. Although his friends and subjects live lives full of decadence and luxury, the photographer lives a humble life, not accepting more money than he needs to live on and doesn’t eat during his working hours. After Cunningham dropped out of Harvard University he started designing hats under the name ‘William J’. His time as a hat maker, however, was cut short after he was called to serve in the army. When he returned he started writing and became particularly interested in fashion journalism. It was then he started photographing women on the streets of New York City. What was so unusual about his photographs was that he would take candid pictures of well known people without their permission. His collections of images became a regular segment in The Times from December 1978 onwards.

The 84 year old now has, without doubt the most impressive street fashion and society archive around as he dedicated his whole life to what he does. He can be found cycling the streets of NYC with his film camera snapping photographs of the most striking and eye catching people the city has to offer. Having a name or a net worth won’t put you on Bill’s radar however, as Anna Wintour said ‘ Women dress for Bill’ they have to make an effort to get immortalized in his rolls of film. The documentary is punctuated with these intimate portraits from across the ages to remind viewers of the world Cunningham captures. The way he sees things in a different way from everybody else, finding beauty in the bizarre and the unusual.

The film is an emotional rollercoaster, though generally it is uplifting and often humorous. The production quality of the film is terrific and it makes for enjoyable and inspiring viewing for all.

Documentary Diary: Super Size Me

The first time I watched Super Size Me, my knowledge of documentary film making was incredibly limited but I still found it entertaining and thought-provoking. I think that is because Morgan Spurlock developed a great hook for the film.

Now that I have gained more of an insight to the film making process, documentaries in particular, I can appreciate how great Spurlock’s debut film actually is. He appealed to a mass market and it carried an important message about the ‘obesity epidemic’ to people’s attention. He had support throughout from health professionals and experts and because he used respected and educated individuals it helped reinforce the statistics and dangers related to the fast food industry.  The use of animations and stills helped keep the attention of audiences after sharing quite heavy medical information and lighten the mood of the documentary. Super Size Me is the 12th highest-grossing documentary of all time which is an undeniable success for the independent filmmaker who tested his physical and psychological well-being during the course of the 30 day experiment.

Morgan Spurlock’s honest and informative technique allows the viewer to empathise with him. You worry for his health when he experiences heart palpitations and at his lowest points throughout the film. It brought the dangers of fast food to people’s attention and it helped make shock-umentaries as popular as they are today.

Super Size Me appeals not only to film lovers but to everybody because it targets an issue we are all facing. It is dealt with in an honest and captivating manner and it’s a must watch for all!

 You can watch Super Size Me on Netflix now! 

Documentary Diary: Dreams of a Life

Taking the advice given to me during the Second Light Documentary Lab, I decided to watch Carol Morley’s Docudrama, ‘Dreams of a Life’.

The film tells the tale of Joyce Carol Vincent, a londoner who died in her bedsit and remained there for three years, undiscovered. It begins with interviews with her long-lost friends and colleagues that narrate the story or Joyce’s life as the filmmakers begin to piece together this woman’s untold story. It was revealed that she was beautiful, popular and had three sisters, it is mind-boggling how her death went unnoticed. The re-enactments are haunting and the documentary is incredibly thought-provoking.